BELARUS: False dawn for Minsk charismatic church
Despite a 15 September promise "as an officer" from Belarus' deputy interior minister General Viktor Filistovich that he would help resolve the predicament of the embattled New Life Church at a further meeting with top religious affairs officials, the deadlock for the Minsk-based charismatic congregation has not been broken. Filistovich failed to appear for a 19 September meeting and junior officials simply repeated earlier demands that the church cannot retain use of a cow-shed it bought in 2002 which it has converted into a church. "Now state officials have no moral right to tell us that we have not exhausted all peaceful methods of resolving our problems," Pastor Vyacheslav Goncharenko commented. Church administrator Vasily Yurevich told Forum 18 News Service that the congregation is currently praying about what to do next. The congregation has been denied re-registration, rendering all its worship services illegal, and church leaders have been fined.
New Life had invited Minsk city executive committee chairman Mikhail Pavlov to explain at its 4 September Sunday service why he and his colleagues took their 17 August decision to confiscate the land beneath the church's building, a disused cowshed it purchased in 2002 (see F18News 1 September 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=640). When Pavlov failed to appear, the entire congregation vowed to go to his office at 4pm on Thursday 15 September, in what Pastor Goncharenko described as "not a demonstration – the church will simply be asking to be received by the mayor".
On 14 September, however, Pastor Goncharenko was invited to a midday meeting with the assistant head of Minsk city police, Colonel Anatoli Naidenko. Accompanied by New Life's administrator Vasily Yurevich and lawyer Sergei Lukanin, the church's website reported that the colonel roughly threatened the three with arrest should members of the church gather near the Minsk city executive building as planned on 15 September, adding that state television had already been ordered to report such events "with appropriate commentary". After Naidenko left the room, the website added, police officers filmed his assistant Yevgeni Poluden repeating the warning – this time politely.
At 10am on 15 September, the three church representatives were unexpectedly called back to Minsk city police department and told that their problem would have to be resolved at a higher level. There followed a one-and-a-half-hour meeting with deputy interior minister General Viktor Filistovich, who reportedly "gave his word as an officer" that he would help resolve the church's predicament positively at a further meeting with top religious affairs officials on Monday 19 September. According to the church's subsequent report, General Filistovich stated that he was personally responsible for public order in Belarus and considered "such a conflict between the state and religious believers to be against the republic's interests".
As a result of this meeting, New Life decided not to go to Mayor Pavlov's office on 15 September. A church report notes that seven busloads of riot police guarded the square outside his building on that day.
Following the promised meeting on 19 September, Yurevich told Forum 18 that General Filistovich had not in fact participated, and that junior rather than senior religious affairs officials had simply reiterated the same demands – that the church should re-register at a new legal address and accept that its cowshed would be bought by the state – that had inspired the original deadlock. "They aren't empowered to take any decisions," he remarked. "It was just for show."
Asked by Forum 18 on 21 September how New Life's situation could now be resolved, Aleksandr Kalinov - who represented the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs at the 19 September meeting – indeed insisted that the only solution was for the church to re-register at a new address, since, as other state representatives have repeatedly explained to Forum 18 (see F18News 21 February 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=516), New Life may not use its building for worship under Belarusian law as it is technically a cowshed. When Forum 18 pointed out that the possession of an alternative legal address would not give the congregation the right to worship there under the 2002 religion law and that the essence of the problem appeared to be the Minsk authorities' refusal to grant the church the permission to meet at venues in the city which is now required under the same law, Kalinov maintained that he had yet to see any evidence that this was the case.
Since no new proposals were made at the 19 September meeting, New Life lawyer Sergei Lukanin concludes that General Filistovich's promise to resolve the church's situation was made "simply to avoid at all costs 'social unrest' while the president was in America". In his address to the United Nations in New York on 16 September, Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko indeed stressed that "there are no conflicts in my country. Different nations and ethnicities co-exist peacefully, each practising their own religion and way of life."
New Life Church has still not been approached by any state department with an offer to purchase its disused cowshed, Yurevich told Forum 18 on 20 September, even though preparations for this were scheduled to take place by 1 September 2005.
For more background information see Forum 18's Belarus religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=478
A printer-friendly map of Belarus is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=belaru
1 September 2005
City authorities in the capital Minsk have told the embattled charismatic New Life church that the land it bought with its church building in 2002 is to be confiscated. The city claims the congregation is using the land on which the church stands "not in accordance with its designation", Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "Our members have paid 13,000 US dollars in taxes on it – they can't say that it's not ours," New Life's administrator Vasily Yurevich told Forum 18. At a 30 August meeting, church members decided to begin a round-the-clock prayer vigil, challenge the proposed confiscation in court and launch a campaign to keep their land. The church has been denied re-registration by the authorities which under Belarusian law, in defiance of international human rights agreements, renders all activity by the 600-strong congregation illegal.
28 July 2005
The Belarusian religion law's insistence on religious communities being registered at a non-residential address, as well as state approval for religious activities outside purpose-built places of worship, creates obstacles for Protestants in particular, Forum 18 News Service has found. For example, the charismatic New Generation Church's 150-strong congregation in Baranovichi faces long-running problems, caused by the authorities' refusal to allow a warehouse the church owns to be converted into a church. Reasons given vary between multi-storey housing being planned for the site, and that it will be used for a stadium's car park. Another example is the Minsk-based charismatic New Life Church, which faces continuing obstruction in using a cowshed for worship. The latest threat, Forum 18 has learnt, is that the city is considering ending the church's right to the land beneath the cowshed. Officials claim that the cowshed can only be used only for its designated purpose – even though animal husbandry is illegal in Minsk city. Forum 18 has found that other Protestant churches throughout Belarus face similar obstructions from officials.
8 June 2005
The New Generation Pentecostal church in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty cancelled a conference due to have begun on 12 June after the church's Latvian-based chief pastor was denied a Kazakh visa. The Kazakh consulate in Latvia told Pastor Aleksei Ledyayev, who was born in Kazakhstan, that a visit to his homeland was "not desirable" but refused to give a reason. "We're asking the authorities for an explanation – and we'll lodge a fresh application for Pastor Aleksei to get a visa," Viktor Ovsyannikov, pastor of the Almaty church, told Forum 18 News Service. Ledyayev was added to the entry ban list by Russia in 2002 and is also barred from Belarus. Others barred from Russia on religious grounds remain barred in Kazakhstan, though Lutheran bishop Siegfried Springer, deported from Russia in April, told Forum 18 he has received a visa for Kazakhstan.